Located in Big Bend National Park is Cattail Falls, the tallest waterfall in Texas (When it is actually flowing). If you look on any maps you won’t see waterfall listed though. This is because most of the water from the Chisos Mountains drains from Cattail Falls, making it an essential contributor to the survival of the barren desert below. With that in mind and with increasing traffic to the falls, the National Park Service decided to block the dirt road leading up to the two mile round trip hike to the falls and back as well as leaving it off all maps in order to protect the fragile area from over visitation. It is still open for visitation but you have to hike a little bit further and know how to find it.
On my third visit to the park I figured out how to get there and with that being one of the few things I haven’t been to in the park, I had to go! The hike begins on a gated off dirt road across the street from the Sam Nail Ranch. There is very limited parking here (especially when big RVs decide to stop at the pull off for lunch) so you’ll want to get there early in the day. Another good reason to start hiking early is the heat. Big Bend is hot all year round with winter highs reaching into the 80s regularly and occasionally hanging out above 90F. This hike has pretty much no tree cover until you arrive at the oasis created by the falls so be sure to bring plenty of water and some cool sunglasses. We started our hike on probably the hottest day of our trip with the sun rising high above the Chisos.
Soon after starting along the dirt road we passed a construction vehicle that was out in the open but invisible from the road. We kept on hiking past the big yellow Volvo and down the desert road.
This trail takes your from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and towards the Chisos Mountains making it hard to not stare up and admire the huge cliffs as the shadows constantly change from the sun rising. While hiking and looking up at the mountains, I noticed a big bird chilling on one of the big agave stalks and took some pictures before it flew off.
Over 400 species of bird visit Big Bend at some point in the year so I had a hard time pinning it down but I’d guess it is a falcon of some sort. The road continues through the desert and passes through a couple arroyos with a couple trees around giving a tiny bit of shade. Maybe a mile and a half in, the road narrows into a trail and this is where the first sign for the waterfall appears.
After this the trail takes you down into a small oasis with a very large tree growing. This is a good spot to take a break if you need to since it is much cooler and much shadier than the rest of the trail. There is also a sign describing the waterfall here.
From the little oasis there is about a mile (It felt like less than a mile to me) to the falls. The trail is pretty much entirely vertical except for right here as you climb up some stairs from the oasis back up into the hot desert. The trail takes you up into Cattail canyon where the the plant life thrives and many animals travel to to drink. I was hoping to see a Mexican Black Bear here since they supposedly frequent this area but I guess they were avoiding me because there were no bears sadly.
The trail takes you over some rocks and under a tree or two. Once the waterfall was in sight there are some more rocks to climb over to get up close.
The waterfall was just a small trickle from the canyon above but impressive still to see what just a little water can do. It was green all over and plants found nowhere else in the park can be found here!
I climbed around and found a nice big boulder to brew some coffee on while enjoying the little oasis we had all to ourselves. It was probably 45 minutes until someone else came along right when we were getting ready to head out. The hike back went by quickly as usual as I enjoyed being on a nice desert hike in the sun while back home in Atlanta it was getting ready to snow.
I would definitely encourage you to visit Cattail Falls just make sure to pack out what you bring and don’t swim in the pool created by the waterfall!
Big Bend’s Iconic “Window”
Thanks! – Josh